Exercise freedom with caution (July 13, 2014)


Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: 1 Corinthians 8

While contemporary Christians can readily understand the ethical issues Paul confronted in Corinth — sexual immorality, legal disputes, divisiveness, even celibacy — the problem of meat offered to idols that is addressed in 1 Corinthians 8 may perplex some believers.

1 Corinthians 8:1-6 — Civil religion in Corinth 

We need to remember that eating meat was a relatively unusual event especially for the poor and lower classes of society in Corinth. Moreover, meat that came from animals sacrificed to pagan gods was served in pagan temples at social and religious events attended by wealthy and politically well-connected civic leaders.

For some Corinthian Christians, attending such functions and eating the meat served there did not pose an ethical problem. Paul describes their perspective in theological terms by quoting their own words. They knew that “no idol in the world really exists,” and “there is no God but one.”

This is bedrock Christian theology rooted in the Jewish faith in the one true God. 1 Corinthians 8:6 expands the well-known Jewish Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 with an early Christian creedal statement that summarizes the message Paul had preached in Corinth. “For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” Some Corinthian Christians believed that all Christians shared this knowledge. Their theological knowledge undergirded their robust consciences so that they had no problem eating meat from animals sacrificed to pagan gods.

1 Corinthians 8:7-10 — Sensitive consciences in Corinth. 

However, not all Corinthian Christians shared that understanding. For some, perhaps the most recent converts from a pagan past, such food still had strong associations with pagan idols and the rituals that went along with their worship. Consequently they were reluctant to eat meat from animals sacrificed to idols. That practice violated their tender consciences.

Although the NRSV translation considers verse 8a to be a quotation expressing the views of these Corinthians and therefore puts “Food will not bring us close to God” in quotation marks, most other translations correctly attribute these words to Paul. He says that eating or not eating a particular food makes no difference in our relationship with God. Given the differences of opinion in the Corinthian congregation, however, eating meat from animals sacrificed to pagan gods had a deeper significance.

1 Corinthians 8:9-13: Christian liberty can harm fellow believers 

Paul warns the Corinthian Christians whose theological knowledge enabled them to eat meat from animals offered to pagan gods that their action could have disastrous consequences for other Christians. Their participation in banquets where meat offered to idols was served could encourage Christians with more sensitive consciences to eat that meat. They would be violating their own weak consciences, and in Paul’s words, “those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed.”

Paul vows never to eat meat if that causes a fellow Christian to stumble. Love for one’s fellow believers is more important than exercising liberty based on theological knowledge. As Paul noted earlier in this passage, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” The word Paul uses for love here is agape, self-giving love for others.

Exercising Christian freedom must be guided by a deeper value than theological knowledge. Concern for the sensitive consciences of other Christians requires what Paul calls “necessary knowledge” in verse 2. That kind of knowledge is informed by God’s knowing and electing love. That love shapes the body of Christ into a loving agape-practicing fellowship of faithful Christians no matter how sensitive or robust their consciences may be. As we often sing, “Blessed be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love.”

For discussion 

How does civic religion like that of Corinth blur the line separating the realm of God from earthly kingdoms? Are there times when our Christian consciences should be more sensitive to injustices perpetrated in the name of civic loyalty? Can you think of examples? For many Christians today, eating meat violates their consciences because of the value of animal life and the environmental costs of raising and marketing meat. How can meat-eaters respect the consciences of vegetarians and vice-versa?

James BrashlerJAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.